Bandits Ride One-Run Magic Into NPF Championship Series
Sunday’s regular-season finale meant nothing for the standings, but the Bandits still wanted to send the Pride a message and continue to prove their mettle in close games.
After USSSA rallied to take a two-run lead in the top of the seventh, Chicago had one last bit of late-game magic in store. The Bandits scored three runs of their own in the bottom half, winning 6-5 on a two-out, walk-off two-run double by Gwen Svekis.
“I like tight games, personally,” Svekis said before Sunday’s game. “They’re very stressful sometimes, but you’re focused the whole time; the adrenaline’s pumping. In those moments, I’m just thinking pass the bat. When I played at Oregon, we had a lot of last-inning wins, so I’ve had a lot of experience in those high-pressure moments.”
Svekis’ hit epitomized the Bandits’ knack for late-game magic — they finished the regular season 12-0 in one-run games, won 12 games in their final at-bat and were 4-0 in extra innings. Chicago’s habit of winning close games can be attributed to its strong pitching and defense — the three most-used pitchers for the Bandits all have an ERA under 2.00 — and an offense that seems to save its best for last.
Many of the exciting finishes have come courtesy of Svekis. In addition to her game-winner Sunday, Svekis also hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the sixth against the Cleveland Comets on July 6 and an RBI single to score the go-ahead run against the Beijing Eagles on August 6.
“I try to lock in a bit more, make sure I’m going after the pitch I want,” Svekis said. “At the end of the game, I’ve already had two, three at-bats before, so I have a lot more knowledge of how they’re trying to get me out.”
The one-run magic began in earnest during a series in Rosemont against the Canadian Wild from June 28 to July 1. The Bandits won all six games in that series, four of which came by one run and three of which came in Chicago’s final at-bat, including two in extra innings. Coach Lauren Lappin said that series gave Chicago the confidence to feel like it was never out of a game.
“Everything is kind of a stepping stone, and that was a huge series,” Lappin said. “For us to be able to pull out those wins in those close ball games just fed our confidence and our ability to always have a shot.”
When the Bandits’ offense is struggling for a few innings, the pitching staff has been able to keep them close. Rachele Fico, Danielle O’Toole and Haylie Wagner have been Chicago’s top arms, with Aleshia Ocasio and rookies Kelly Barnhill and Savannah Heebner also putting in quality work.
Wagner echoed Svekis in saying she enjoys the tight games and the challenges that come with them.
“Of course I love when my offense explodes, but [the tight games] are fun,” Wagner said. “I love every single one of our pitchers and they’ve all contributed in a very special way. We just go out there and we attack and get our offense the opportunity to hit.”
Chicago’s confidence was especially helpful on August 3, when the Bandits took on the Pride in Florida as they closed in on the regular-season title. After beating USSSA for the first time this season earlier in the evening, Chicago outlasted the Pride 4-3 in eight innings, with rookie Abbey Cheek driving in the eventual game-winning run. Lappin called that win a statement game for the Bandits.
“There’s just a presence about this group,” Lappin said. “It was a highly emotional, contentious game, and for us to stay above it and be ourselves and come out with a win, that was a character win that will feed us down the stretch here.”
The Pride, meanwhile, come into the championship series having lost six of their last eight games, and they are just 3-5 in one-run decisions and 0-3 in extra innings. Chicago has won its last four against USSSA after dropping the first four contests between the teams, giving the Bandits all kinds of momentum.
Lappin, however, said she wasn’t even aware of the Pride’s struggles in close games and reiterated that her team is keeping the focus on itself. She said the Bandits have been focusing on scoring early during the second half of the season, but the knowledge that they can still win even when they fail to do so has to help.
“We’ve been really focusing on us and what we’re doing, and having blinders on and being in our little Bandits bubble,” Lappin said. “I don’t really care (about the Pride’s record), because they’re always competitive and they’re going to come to fight and we know that, but if we focus on ourselves and we play our game and we have a ball out there, we’re going to do a lot of great things.”